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The Hills Are Alive

Author: Cerrissa MacNichols
February, 2011 Issue

Nestled outside the town of Occidental is a not-so-secret garden that continues to amaze with its lush and unexpected diversity.

 
One might wonder if Marshall Olbrich and Lester Hawkins, now considered pioneers in the back-to-the-land movement, had any idea of the legacy they’d be leaving behind through the creation of Western Hills nursery. Their purchase in the 1960s of little more than three acres of a hilly tract of pastureland in the small Sonoma County town of Occidental was the start of a something big. Over the years, their small paradise has involved hundreds, if not thousands, of people, many of whom continue to have a deep and personal connection to the sprawling botanical garden that still stands today.

Like many beginning gardeners, Olbrich and Hawkins started with fruit trees and vegetables, but soon they turned from edible plants to ornamentals. Once the garden was established, Olbrich, a self-taught horticulturist, and Hawkins, a landscape designer, traveled the world and brought back plant species and cultivars that, in those years, had never before been grown in California. It might be hard to imagine a time when plants such as diascias, euphorbias and penstemons, common in local gardens now, were rare and had only been seen by people who’d visited abroad or read garden books. These were just a few of the species that rare plant and seed collectors Olbrich and Hawkins propagated in their garden. Globalization now allows for much easier access to foliage from other locales, but one of the things that makes Western Hills unique now is that many specimens were planted almost half a century ago, making them the largest and oldest of their kind in this region.
 

Changing hands

Hawkins passed away in 1986, and Olbrich followed in 1991. They willed the property to Maggie Wych, a loyal employee and Olbrich’s close friend. Maggie worked tirelessly on the garden and even had a grand gazebo, modeled after a 15th century structure, built to replace a collapsing one on the property. She’s the person responsible for adding beautiful and protective stone walls to the manmade drainage canals, whose beds were originally sided only by dirt.

“She made a lot of additions—both plants and structural—during her ownership,” says Betsy Flack, West Coast program coordinator for the Garden Conservancy, who first got involved with Western Hills in 1978. “She really carried the dream of the garden forward using the vision of the original owners.”

After years of dedication to the property, Wych sold it to Occidental residents Robert Stansel and Joseph Gatta in 2007. Stansel and Gatta struggled to maintain the retail business and nearly lost their own home trying before going into foreclosure.

Chris Szybalski and her brother, Jeff Eckart, owners of Westbrae Nursery in Berkeley, were looking for a nursery to purchase when they came upon Western Hills three years ago. “The location was geographically too remote for a nursery that would generate enough income, but I fell in love with the garden,” says Szybalski. It was also too expensive, listed at just under $2 million, so she continued to keep an eye on the property. When it went into foreclosure last year, she and her husband, Tim, were able to purchase it at an affordable price.

Secrets revealed

When the Szybalskis became the owners of Western Hills Nursery last July, they found that the botanical garden came with a host of volunteers, many with professional ties to horticulture and all whom were personally devoted to the property.

During the time the property was waiting for new owners, the real estate agent and bank had quietly ignored all the watering and care the volunteers were performing to keep the plants from dying. With 28 manual valves used to turn on the various watering zones, volunteers had set up a complicated watering schedule that included hand watering of some of the areas.

Stacie Miller, a committed volunteer, was nervous about who might buy the property, but is thrilled with the new owners and has since developed a close relationship with them. “They’re dynamite and they have a real passion for gardening here,” says Miller. Asked why she’d volunteer so much of her time at a garden that isn’t even hers, Miller responds, “It’s one of those places you go that can meet you wherever you are. The garden just scoops you up and holds you in a completely different place from where you might be in your day-to-day life.”

Miller has visited gardens in many places and says she’s never seen anything even remotely similar to Western Hills. As a painter, she appreciates the intentional use of colors that Olbrich and Hawkins bore in mind during the garden’s creation. “Every shade of green imaginable is in this place,” she says. The distinctive use of color is obvious in the multi-hued layers captured in each unique vista.

Chris has discovered that people with ties to Western Hills read like a who’s who of the horticulture world. “Many of today’s best known horticulturalists volunteered here in their younger years,” she says. Even Tim’s cousin, Sean Hogan, who now owns a nursery outside of Portland, Oregon, a certified arborist, landscape designer and author of several books on horticulture including Flora: A Gardner’s Encyclopedia, worked in the garden in his early years. “It seems like the more people we talk to, the more people we find who had some sort of connection to the garden at one time or another,” says Chris. The 1960s counter-culture inspired many young people interested in gardening to serve a stint at Western Hills and provided an opportunity for them to meet prominent botanists and horticulturists, many of whom made pilgrimages to the property. Many of those “young people” are now leading specialists in the field.

Devoted stewards

Bob Hornback has lived in Occidental for more than 31 years, 21 of them right across the road from Western Hills. A professional horticulturist, writer and teacher who owns Muchas Grasses, a company that specializes in plant brokerage, consultation and design with ornamental grasses, Hornback has been good friends with all the Western Hills owners, past and present. He’s best known for his research and lecturing on Luther Burbank and stresses that Western Hills is a historical property. “There’s a history tied into the landscape,” he says, adding that the Garden Conservancy in New York has even discussed having him involved with writing a history of the property. By extension, he’s become friends with the Szybalskis and is working with them on their restoration and preservation efforts. One of the things he’s been helping with is identifying plants and teaching them how to properly care for the individual specimens.

Restoration efforts

It’s obvious why volunteers are integral to Western Hills: It’s not the sort of place that can be easily cared for by one or two people. “It takes about three days to clear a patch this size,” says Chris, pointing to a plot the size of a small bedroom that looks neat and tidy. Parts of the garden have become overrun by plants that have taken on a life of their own during their lifespan and were left untended for too long. Chris admits it will take a considerable amount of time before everything is in order. Both educated as engineers, the first thing the Szybalskis did was automate the sprinkler system, leaving more time for actual pruning and managing of plant life. They’ve also been clearing the paths and repairing the 31 plank bridges.

Betsy Flack, who spent time learning propagation from Oblrich and enjoyed spending time with the two engaging, intelligent and visionary first owners, has recently returned as a volunteer at Western Hills. “[Marshall and Lester] encouraged a lot of us to continue in the field, and we eventually found our way to become professionals—through working with them.

“The Garden Conservancy is now providing preservation assistance to Western Hills. The owners and the Garden Conservancy are in conversation about what role the Garden Conservancy might play in helping them plan for the future of the garden and for its public use,” she says. A few possibilities include a sponsorship of the Western Hills volunteer program and a Garden Conservancy open days program that would open the garden to the public one or two times in 2011.

Beauty revealed

People often use the term “magical” in their explanation of what draws them to the garden, which was built around seven or more ponds and a series of incredible “creeks,” carved out of the earth by the original owners, weaving throughout the acreage and providing drainage. Winding paths with intermittent canopies made from cascading branches lead to unexpected scenes and bursts of color. “It’s like a series of rooms or vignettes constructed from vegetation,” says Chris. Each “room” is connected by the paths that curve around the edge of each space, a sensory feast filled with sights, sounds, textures and smells. One particular setting mimics a Monet painting so perfectly, there seems no doubt it was created as a real life replica.

Hornback says the garden is special because, “It’s a departure from the norm. Instead of being built around a hardscape or statuaries, the garden is focused on plants as the art form.”

Olbrich and Hawkins collected exotic plants from China, India, Japan, South East Asia, South Africa, South America (especially Chile), Australia, New Zealand and other globe trotting locales with climates similar to ours, ones that characteristically go without summer rain. They brought back plants and seeds that would thrive in this intricate, western Sonoma County banana belt, that contains numerous microclimates even within its scant three acres. Over time, as the nursery’s reputation grew as the place to find atypical and uncommon plants,  many people began sending cuttings to Olbrich and Hawkins. It’s said that many of the giants that flourish on the property today started in three-inch pots.

There’s an acer pentaphyllum, a rare maple that’s native to China, which graces the entrance to the nursery, and a Chilean wine palm that’s grown so prolifically you can walk under its huge, spreading canopy. Some plants are unusual because of their maturity and others have naturally selected out (some species planted have died out while others have flourished and self-propagated), over the last 50 years in unusual ways. A flowering shrub from China, michaelia yunannensis, produces creamy white, magnolia-type flowers. Although it’s been available on the market for at least 10 years, Stansel (who owned it just prior to the Szybalskis) once told a reporter the one at Western Hills was grown from seedlings, and its foliage is much darker than normal.

Many flora now available in specialty catalogs and nurseries were initially propagated for the market at Western Hills, and some of the trees Hawkins and Olbrich planted are now massive, including what may be one of the largest zelkovas (of the elm family) on the West Coast. Olbrich and Hawkins enjoyed engineering complex perennial plants and, even through subsequent years of neglect, many have survived and adapted, including the: phormium, astelia, phlomis, furcraea, eryngiums, echium, gunnera, linaria, hellebores, geraniums, lychnis, pulmonarias, symphytums, myosotis, lamium, dicentra, euphorbias and ferns of all kinds.

It’s not just the plants that are special. Due to being amended so many times throughout its history, the soil here has been likened by experts to “gold.” Dick Miner joined the prestigious cast of Western Hills characters last year, when he found out about the project through the Garden Conservancy in San Francisco. “As soon as I walked in, I knew it was a project I wanted to be a part of,” he says.

A volunteer gardener for the Alcatraz garden restoration project since 2004, Miner has a passion for composting and mulch, which, he says, are an integral part of creating a sustainable garden. This man knows what he’s talking about: His mulch won best of show at the Marin County Fair in 2010. He’s built compost bins at Western Hills and helps sort out materials that can be mulched from those that can’t (such as bamboo). “The compost has to get up to at least 140 degrees to break down the material and cook and kill the weed seeds,” says Miner. 

“He has a special thermometer that reaches deep into the compost pile,” says Chris.

Chris hopes the nursery the New York Times once likened to a “Tiffany’s for plants” will someday be open to the public again and run as a nonprofit similar to the Ruth Bancroft Nursery in Walnut Creek, with cadres of volunteers still actively participating. When asked about future plans for the garden, Chris says, “We decided we wouldn’t make any big decisions about the property for two years.”

“We want to stabilize it for now,” Tim adds.

Along with all the work to be done in the garden, the Szybalskis are currently refurbishing two of the three structures on the property. The third building, once the main house, is in such disrepair they aren’t sure yet about its fate. In the meantime, they’re enjoying working weekends in their amazing garden with overnights spent at the Occidental hotel, and family and friends have been willingly pulled into the mix to assist with projects big and small. Chris’ childhood friend, Sue Duncan, happens to love gardening, and her husband, Paul, is now the Western Hills handyman. The couple ventures from their home in El Cerrito for weekends of peaceful toiling. The Szybalskis’ 27-year-old son, Andy, who works for Google, calls himself a “day laborer” and has been up several times with his girlfriend to help out on the property. Wych continues to support the new owners, working alongside of them offering invaluable assistance identifying plants.

Western Hills is the type of place that takes time to get to know, with every season bringing new surprises. So far, the Szybalskis have witnessed the profusion of flowers and fragrances that arrive in summer; the bronzes, oranges and yellows of autumn; and the bareness of winter, with the sparsity of leafless branches changing the scenery of the pathways and settings, and opening up new visual panoramas. They’ve yet to partake in the abundance of spring when up to 20,000 bulbs are rumored to bloom.

Western Hills is illustrated in layers of trees, vines, flowering shrubs, herbaceous bushes and magnificent ground covers, whose effects are altered with adjustments made by the clouds, rain, sun and shadows. A one-day jaunt is hardly enough to soak up all its brilliance.


Western Hills is currently closed to the public, but the Szybalskis and their volunteers hope in the not too distant future, it will once again be open to all who wish to experience its magnificence. If you’re interested in volunteering, email stacie@westernhillsgarden.com or call (707) 872-5472.

 

 

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